Last month Phoenix New Times celebrated the cream of the crop with our 36th annual Best of Phoenix edition. Here are our top picks for ethnic restaurants in metro Phoenix.
Best Japanese Restaurant: ShinBay On the exterior, chef Shinji Kurita's James Beard Award-nominated restaurant looks like just another sleek strip mall dining spot in Scottsdale. But take one step inside and you'll immediately know that you're about to experience something special. Everything from the classical music that plays through unseen speakers to the attentive and knowledgeable servers is as sophisticated and expertly selected as the chef's food.
Kurita gives diners few choices once they've sat down to dine -- just the number of courses and accompanying drinks. Everything else is left up to the chef, which is good because we'd never be able to choose between dishes like pan-fried whole soft shell crab, buttery sake mushi, or sake-steamed mushrooms. Fortunately, nearly all of Kurita's coursed menus include the chef's signature Tsukuri Six, a stunning selection of small seafood bites. The selection varies by season but usually includes a variation of Kurita's tuna tartar, New Caledonia blue shrimp, and, if you're lucky, a fresh Kumamoto oyster accented with ponzu gélee and unctuous sea urchin.
Best Chinese Restaurant: Hong Kong Asian Diner Drive by this quiet strip mall restaurant in south Tempe and you'd never expect it to be a haven for those seeking expertly executed Cantonese cuisine. As with many great but under appreciated restaurants, this is a family-owned and -operated spot where service is friendly but far from formal. And that's okay, because the real draw is the selection of hard-to-find Chinese entrées, including a rich, comforting platter of deep-fried duck with taro and soy sauce chicken. If you want the good stuff, you'll have to make sure you get your hands on one of the Chinese menus -- and don't worry if you're unsure where to start; your server will likely offer plenty of guidance. Once you've explored the actual menu, you'll be ready to graduate to the restaurant's order-ahead offerings which include specialties such as braised whole duck (as in feet, head, and all).
Best Vietnamese Restaurant: Khai Hoan True food love is almost as much about the nostalgia as it is the food itself, and for many Valley residents, eating at Khai Hoan in Tempe is a beloved ritual. Before pho was on every corner, Khai Hoan was serving bowls of the soup for years, being the first spot where many people tried it locally. For that, we love Khai Hoan. The décor is basic, but the food is always spot-on and the service is always friendly. Simple, flavorful spring rolls and huge, steamy bowls of pho -- as well as freshly cracked coconuts -- transport you to another place. Once you can tear yourself away from the pho, you'll discover delicious, authentic bun cha rice noodle dishes and hu tieu glass noodle soups, but you certainly don't have to stray. We'd understand.
Best Korean Restaurant: Cafe Ga Hyang Sure, there are plenty of times when any old Korean barbecue place will do. But when we get a hankering for top-quality banchan and sizzling bowls of bibimbap, there's only one place that truly satisfies. That's Cafe Ga Hyang. Stop in for lunch and you'll find a quiet little West Valley dining spot where your semi-private booth will be festooned with little dishes of spicy kimchee, pickled potatoes, and other starters. Then it will be followed by entrées such as kalbi beef and bubbling bowls of tofu soup.
If you're lucky, charming co-owner Sun Johnson will be your server and double as a guide through the menu if you're unfamiliar with the cuisine. At night, the restaurant gets a more energetic vibe, with karaoke and drinks flowing until 2 a.m. Even better, the kitchen stays open just as late, so you can get get your jap chae fix long after most Valley restaurants have closed up shop.
Best Thai Restaurant: Nunthaporn's Thai Cuisine It seems everyone has their own favorite place in the Valley to order a bowl of pad Thai, but if you seek fresh, flavorful Thai cuisine, then you absolutely have to try Nunthaporn's Thai Cuisine in Mesa. You might think all pad thai is created equal, but once you try Nunthaporn's, you'll know what the dish should be. And don't hestitate to order something different like the ginger and black-fungus-based pad khing, though, because no matter what you order at this modest-looking restaurant, you will not be disappointed. Whatever you order, you can enjoy eating it inside or on the patio as you watch shoppers peruse Mesa's historic downtown promenade off Main Street.
Best Soul Food Restaurant: Lo Lo's Chicken and Waffles Lo-Lo's Chicken and Waffles may have relocated to shiny new digs in the same neighborhood south of downtown Phoenix in 2012, but we can assure you that the much bigger, more contemporary space hasn't had any effect on the restaurant's soul-filled food. It's really no surprise that this restaurant serves such knockout Southern specialties when you consider that owner Larry "Lo-Lo" White is the grandson of Phoenix food legend Elizabeth White of downtown Phoenix's Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe.
Larry's restaurant may not be as authentic to the Deep South experience, but that doesn't make the food any less authentic. You can still find any combination of fried chicken and waffles you can dream up, as well as biscuits and gravy, shrimp and grits, fried catfish, and more. You'll definitely want to wash it down with a jar of Lo-Lo's famous Red Kool-Aid Drank.
Best Indian Restaurant: Little India To compare this place to a mini-market wouldn't be quite accurate, because it feels even smaller than an ordinary convenience store. But its three aisles are surprisingly well stocked with Indian ingredients. Besides that, you can chow down on freshly prepared dishes (Indian snacks), from aromatic curries to chunky potato cakes laden with chutneys, yogurt sauce, and fresh cilantro. Cool your tastebuds with a frothy mango lassi so you can go the distance.
Best Mediterranean Restaurant: Middle Eastern Bakery and Deli When it comes to restaurants, at least, the line between Middle Eastern and Mediterranean gets fuzzy. Luckily, we're here for the food, not to draw lines on a map, because all we know is that Middle Eastern Bakery and Deli in Central Phoenix serves some of the best falafel and dolmades in town. The little market that houses the counter-service restaurant certainly is worth exploring, but what we come back to taste time and time again are dishes such as the bright, fresh tabbouleh, sweet baklava (which comes in three different styles), and tender lamb kebabs. It also helps that the restaurant's staff is always friendly and accommodating and they make even first-time diners feel like longtime fans.
Best Jewish Deli: Goldman's Deli There's nothing fancy about Goldman's -- and we wouldn't want it any other way. It feels as though this classic Jewish deli has been in the same spot forever, a place where the chopped liver is creamy, the matzoh balls are fluffy, and the corned beef is spot-on. Put it all on rye with a seltzer and get a hunk of halvah for dessert. Then, if you squint a little (okay, you might need to close your eyes completely), South Scottsdale becomes the Lower East Side of Manhattan, if only till your plate's clean.
Best German Restaurant: Haus Murphy's Serving Valley residents who want a really great brat these past 18 years, Haus Murphy's has gone on to become a local tradition. Who else serves such authentic schnitzel? No one else, that's who. We love the jägerschnitzel, a pile of pork loin that's breaded and sautéed to a golden brown and topped with a mushroom demiglaze. Served with German-fried potatoes and Wirsing, this is the most German meal in town, and one you won't mind driving to historic downtown Glendale return for. Sometimes we start out in the Wunderbar Lounge, a German-style pub with long benches in Murphy's biergarten. There, we tip back a huge beer and groove to the sounds of Haus Murphy's oompah band before heading in for our schnitzel plate. Guten!
Best French Restaurant: Zinc Bistro For francophiles. there's nothing not to like about chef Matt Carter's Zinc Bistro. The restaurant hits the nail on the head when it comes to replicating a charming Parisian bistro. The tin ceilings, abundance of light, and spacious patio make you feel as though you're dining in the City of Lights, and the food backs up the vibe.
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Start your meal with a cup of Carter's incredible onion soup, which comes with a thick layer of crispy melted cheese. From there, you really can't go wrong with anything on the menu, though a few standouts include the grilled lamb and, believe it or not, the pomme frites. Carter's French fries are just about perfect, fried to a golden brown and then seasoned with marjoram, paprika, and a touch of fleur de sel.
Best Italian Restaurant: Franco's Italian Caffe Italian-born chef Franco Fazzuoli truly makes you feel like family when you dine at his Scottsdale restaurant. In 2012, the chef returned to the Valley after leaving for a stint in New York and opened the cozy Franco's Italian Caffe. You'll often see Fazzuoli wandering between the tables and bustling in and out the kitchen amid plates of pasta and incredible desserts. One of our favorite dishes is the pasta erbe aromatiche, which combines handmade strozzapreti pasta with a light sauce made of white wine and just a touch of cream. The namesake aromatic herbs are what make the dish so stunning. You'll be able to smell them as soon as the plate arrives at your table.
Best Italian Deli: Romanelli's For Phoenicians who grew up on the west side, having the city's best Italian deli practically in your backyard was a pleasant perk. For everyone else who liked authentic Italian baked goods or needed a nicer ricotta for their Easter pie, it meant driving farther. Because Romanelli's is it, where Italian delis are concerned. Home of Boar's Head brand everything (hot dogs, sauerkraut, ham), several imported Parmesans, and wheels of smoked mozzarellas, Romanelli's doesn't stop at capicola or spinach pies. Its full-service bakery offers cannoli, tiramisu, and sfogiatelle so authentic, you'll think you're in Pisa. The friendly staff also caters events and will be happy to help you determine the difference between hard Romano and harder Romano. When in Phoenix, head to Romanelli's!